The BBC have reported today that the British Museum is presently ‘guarding’ a precious artefact stolen from Syria, ‘in the hope of returning it when the country is stable’. I suppose it must be assumed that ‘stable’, is code for ‘when Assad is overthrown’. Director Neil MacGregor told The Times:
“We are playing a significant part in holding objects that have been illegally exported. We did that in Afghanistan and are now returning them. We are holding an object we know was illegally removed from Syria and one day it will go back.
The question of whether we should help with the conservation and preservation of another country’s heritage is serious. There is a significant international agreement, the Hague Convention about the protection of cultural property in war zones. Only one country in the security council hasn’t ratified it, the UK..”
The British Museum would not reveal which artefact they have in their possession, or how it came to be in its possession. Was it smuggled into the UK? Did the museum purchase it? It would be interesting to know what the item is, as this would give away what location it was taken from and who controls that territory. Clearly they do not want that information to be made public.
There are stolen items up for sale in Turkey, and I know that al Nusra and its affiliates looted churches in Maaloula which then turned up in Lebanon. Citizens in Maaloula have so far managed to recover more than 100 artefacts from Lebanon, following fifteen months of work and negotiations. Many of the items came back sabotaged, and were all together in poor condition compared with before they were taken. Maaloula is holding an event to showcase the recovered pieces on June 13th, with the artefacts to be displayed at the historical yard of the old church. The group will then release a short film clip documenting the event.
Items taken from churches in Maaloula, Syria by JAN & its affiliates
(found in Lebanon)
To return to the British Museum, one must ask whether they have contacted Syrian authorities to discuss their ‘find’, and why they can’t just return the object now? I might try inquiring about some of these issues, although I doubt they will feel inclined to reply.